What do we do when we know we’ve sinned against God?
In a previous post, we looked at the story of Peter’s denials of Jesus. The gospel accounts agree that Peter disowned his Lord three times–but he may well have been confronted by many more people than that. When the rooster crowed, Jesus’ earlier prediction hit Peter with full force. He knew immediately what he had done, how he had betrayed his Master. He ran outside to weep tears of remorse.
Of all the gospel writers, only Matthew follows that story with a study in contrasts (Matt 27:1-10). If Peter is the example of a faithful response to legitimate guilt, Judas and the chief priests provide two counterexamples, to be examined in turn in this post and the next. Here’s Judas’ story:
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5, NIV)
Judas, one of the Twelve: the embezzler, the turncoat. For obvious reasons, the gospels do not treat him particularly kindly. Yet in the story Matthew tells here, Judas appears to be motivated by more than mere greed. He acts like a man who is genuinely surprised at the outcome of what he had set in motion. People have speculated that Judas, expecting a military Messiah rather than a Suffering Servant, was trying to force Jesus’ hand. Surely a Messiah with that kind of power would have to lay his cards on the table definitively at some point. For Judas, sooner was better than later.
Matthew doesn’t tell us where Judas was during the trial, but I imagine him being present during the proceedings, hiding in the shadows. When Caiaphas asked Jesus point-blank if he was the Messiah, Judas’ heart leapt to his throat: would this be the moment at last?
But no. The sinking feeling in the pit of Judas’ stomach grew deeper as it became increasingly clear that Jesus would do nothing to save himself. By the time Jesus was allowing himself to be pummeled and spat upon, Judas knew for certain: he had betrayed an innocent man to his death.
Filled with remorse, he returned to the chief priests and elders, blood money in hand. “I sinned,” he says, using the language of confession rather than mere miscalculation. Thus, we might see in Judas’ actions what any other guilt-laden Jew might do: he looks to the keepers of the religious establishment for some kind of absolution.
He finds none. And worse, the chief priests speak as if the whole affair were Judas’ fault. In disgust and desperation, he leaves them and hurls the money into the temple. Then he expiates his guilt in the only way he knows how. An eye for an eye. Judas hangs himself.
Peter and Judas both betrayed Jesus, each in his own way. Both felt a crushing load of guilt. But one is restored while the other is left swinging at the end of a rope. What makes for the difference?
I don’t want to overplay Peter’s faithfulness in a way that would suggest that he was rewarded for some quality in his repentance that Judas lacked. And there is the context to consider: had the chief priests done their priestly duties, would Judas have found forgiveness? Who knows. But in the end, when the chief priests turned him away, Judas was completely isolated, alone with his guilt and grief. All that was left to him was his own initiative, and with it, he ended his life.
I am leery of my own arrogance at this point. I have never been tempted to take my own life, and don’t wish to presume that I could possibly understand the desperation Judas must have felt. Jesus himself seemed to treat his errant disciple with compassion, and we should do no less.
But it seems to me that there may well have been a difference between Judas’ response and Peter’s, even if it must be inferred in retrospect. In his grief, Peter was emptied in a way that only the grace of God could fill. And Judas? In betraying Jesus to the chief priests, he had taken messianic matters into his own hands. Could something similar be said about his final decision to take his own life?
There is a way of responding to guilt that avoids emptiness by filling the space with action and resolve. I know this because I have done it. Rather than be broken completely, I prefer to be broken just enough to take up the project of either self-improvement or self-flagellation. Anything is better than believing I can do nothing.
So again, the question: what do we do when we know we’ve sinned against God? Does our response to guilt make a space for grace?